Keeping the Peace
Before he joined the Peace Corps, Don Spiers hadn’t thought much about how people in other countries viewed Americans. And if he had, he never would have imagined what he heard during his 1973 to 1975 service in Venezuela. Tasked with finding a way to control mosquitoes, he was traveling with Venezuelan colleagues into remote Amazon villages, and the tribe members, hearing his fluent Spanish, often mistook him to be Venezuelan, too.
“Their Spanish was good enough to talk with us,” Spiers says, “and they would talk about Americans. They thought in America, we were still having gunfights with Indians in the ’70s because all they had seen were Westerns on TV. … It opened my eyes to what people are going through in other countries and how they are thinking.”
Although his service lasted just 27 months and ended 40 years ago, Spiers’s Peace Corps experience still affects how he lives today. Since he and his family moved to Columbia in 1991, Spiers, a professor of animal science, has helped launch the Central Missouri Returned Peace Corps Volunteers group, the MU Peace Corps Prep program and the MU Peace Corps Fellows Program.
Mike Burden, a member of the Central Missouri Returned Peace Corps Volunteers board of directors, describes Spiers as a “driving force” in the local Peace Corps community.
“He’s full of energy and involved in everything,” Burden says. “He’s one of the most active people in the group.”
He wasn’t always so outgoing, Spiers says. He explains that going into the Peace Corps, he was quiet and withdrawn. He was born and raised in Virginia and had never flown on a plane before joining the Peace Corps, which happened sort of accidentally. After earning his master’s degree at Virginia Tech, Spiers saw an advertisement from the Smithsonian for a biology job that required traveling abroad. Intrigued, he applied and discovered that to get the job, he had to join the Peace Corps, so he did.
“I just saw it was an opportunity and thought, ‘If I pass this up, I’m going to stay just this quiet, withdrawn individual for the rest of my life,’ ” he says. “I had no commitments, nothing to tie me down. This was a chance to do something that was maybe good and so I said, ‘Why not?’ and I jumped into it, not knowing — not having a clue — whether I could do this or not. My folks, my family kind of thought I was crazy at the time, but they were all supportive and said, ‘Go for it,’ and, like I said, it completely opened my eyes up to the world, and it gave me the experience to go out and try stuff when you’re not absolutely certain it’s going to work.”
That lesson was driven home when the specific project Spiers went to Venezuela to do — find a way to use fish that eat mosquito larva to control mosquito populations — was not successful. But Spiers still learned a lot, still shared his knowledge with Venezuelans and still established friendships, some of which he maintains to this day.
“Just throwing yourself out there, you come back realizing how much you can do, that you really can do a lot,” he says.
The Peace Corps Mindset
The work Spiers has done locally for the Peace Corps proves that point. Not only did he help launch the Central Missouri Returned Peace Corps Volunteers group, but he was also behind the start of the group’s Third Goal Film Festival, an annual film festival showcasing documentary and narrative films that help “promote a better understanding of other peoples” — the third goal listed in John F. Kennedy’s original mission statement for the Peace Corps. This year’s festival is taking place Jan. 31 at the Missouri Theatre. (See “Third Goal Film Festival” for more information.)
The MU Peace Corps Prep program Spiers helped launch in 2013 prepares undergraduates, who can have any major, for global service. Although participation in the program won’t guarantee students’ admission into the Peace Corps, it makes them more competitive applicants. The Peace Corps Fellows Program — which began in 2007 after Spiers brought the idea to then-Chancellor Brady Deaton, himself a returned Peace Corps volunteer — attracts returned Peace Corps volunteers to MU. The fellows bring a global outlook to campus and give back through service projects.
What’s motivated Spiers to continue his Peace Corps work is his belief that friendships and cultural understanding make the world a better place.
“It’s the Peace Corps mindset,” he says. “During the three months of training, they have some things they drill into you. One is to experience everything — to be very flexible when you’re in another culture, to go with the flow, to not judge other people in other cultures. A common phrase is ‘to work within the culture,’ to learn what that culture is all about and then to work slowly, little by little, within that culture to make some change in the right direction.”
When Spiers returned home, he found he still had that mindset of looking for ways to help, and as he met other returned Peace Corps volunteers, he realized they had it, too.
“We’ve actually joked around sometimes and said Peace Corps is almost like a religion,” he says. “You come back, and it’s like you’ve been born again. You’re seeing something for the first time, and this is your reason to live, so to speak, to get other people to see the same thing. It’s sort of like being an evangelical preacher for international understanding.”
Spiers, 66, plans to retire from MU this August, and he’s considering a second round of Peace Corps service. His wife, Peggy, who works in Human Resources for MU, will not join him, so if he does go, it will be with Peace Corps Response, also called the Crisis Corps, which requires just three to 12 months, rather than the standard 27.
“I’m thinking while my wife is still working, if I can find just the right opportunity to go teach in one of the countries, I may jump into it, at least for six months,” he says.
He adds that there’s a push right now within the Peace Corps to get more retired people to serve. There’s no maximum age limit on when people can join.
“I know people who went to college, graduated from college, started their job, started their family, started their mortgage, and who have told me: ‘I wish I had done what you did. I wish I had taken the time to go abroad and get that adventure,’ ” Spiers says. “And now some of those people are retiring and thinking, ‘I might still have a chance to get out there and have my adventure and, at the same time, help somebody.’ There are a lot of seniors today who want to go abroad and do something more than just be a tourist, and this is a great opportunity to do that.”
What Is The Peace Corps?
The Peace Corps began in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship. Peace Corps volunteers have served in more than 139 countries and tackle challenges that know no borders, such as climate change, pandemic disease, food security, and gender equality and empowerment.
Peace Corps volunteers learn about leadership, ingenuity, self-reliance and relationship-building, and become global citizens. When they return home, they share their stories and experiences and give back to their own communities, helping to strengthen international ties and increase our global competitiveness.
Learn more at www.peacecorps.gov.
Interested In Peace Corps Service?
The Peace Corps is not just for recent college graduates. Eight percent of volunteers are older than 50. The application process begins with an online application that takes less than an hour to complete and also includes a health history form, an interview and medical clearance.
To find out more,
- visit www.peacecorps.gov,
- follow Peace Corps at Mizzou at www.facebook.com/MizzouPeaceCorps and attend posted events, or
- contact the local Peace Corps recruiter, Lebo Moore, at 573-884-2003.
Third Goal Film Festival
The Third Goal Film Festival showcases documentary and narrative films covering diverse, worldwide issues to help “promote a better understanding of other peoples” — the third goal listed in John F. Kennedy’s original mission statement for the Peace Corps.
“Films evoke immediate emotional reactions and transport viewers across the globe,” says Mike Burden, the festival’s coordinator. “We’ve found it a great vehicle to spark discussion among our attendees.”
A screening committee of Central Missouri Returned Peace Corps Volunteers chooses the films. In general, the films are
- set in any of the 140 countries where Peace Corps has served,
- thought-provoking, current and foster greater understanding of the culture(s) in the film, and
- able to spark dialogue about pressing global issues, such as access to education, water rights and impacts of colonialism.
The festival program, which will be released Jan. 1 and posted on www.thirdgoalfilmfest.org, will include four to six films of various lengths. Films are followed by speaker panels, which feature returned Peace Corps volunteers who served in the highlighted region, people who are from the region and local experts.
Attendees can come to one or all of the films.
“After each film, we have about 20 minutes of discussion and then another 20 minutes of break,” Burden says. “We try to make it comfortable for people to stay the whole day.”
Along with the films and discussion panels, there will be free samples of food from around the world, prepared by returned Peace Corps volunteers. Attendees will also see photos that returned Peace Corps volunteers took while serving.
This is the first year the festival is taking place in the Missouri Theatre, a move that followed the festival’s win of the 2014 Loret Miller Ruppe Award from the National Peace Corps Association.
“It was energizing, definitely,” Burden says of the honor. “It led to, ‘OK, let’s make this bigger; let’s take it to the Missouri Theatre and see how we can grow.’ ”
Friday, Jan. 30
Columbia Access Television’s Studio A in Stephens College Helis Communication Center
1405 E. Broadway
Saturday, Jan. 31
Third Goal Film Fest
1 to 9 p.m.
203 S. Ninth St.